by Li-Young Lee
Lines 1-11 Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
People have been trying to kill me since I was born,
a man tells his son, trying to explain
the wisdom of learning a second tongue.
- A man tells his son it's a good idea to learn a second language. Why? Because people might want to kill him. Huh? We don't remember anyone giving us that reason when we were forced to take French in high school. It's a pretty strong reason, though – we'll give the man that.
- But what's the connection between a second language and people trying to kill you? We're guessing that maybe if, say, the country you're living in becomes unsafe, another language would help a lot if you need to relocate to another place instead.
- The title kind of fits with this: if you flee to another country, you're – by definition – an immigrant there. And you've got the blues because the immigrant life is not often easy.
- We're not really sure who this father and son are supposed to be. Is this just a conversation that our speaker is overhearing? Is he imagining it?
- And one more thing: they've been trying to kill this father since he was born? We're not completely sure what to make of this. Maybe he was born into a family or ethnic group that others want to wipe out. There are a number of terrifying possibilities behind that opening line, so we'll just have to keep reading to see if we can solve this mystery.
It's the same old story from the previous century
about my father and me.
- We've got a brand new stanza here. (Gear yourself up for a lot of stanza breaks.)
- Our speaker compares the story of this father and son to an experience between him and his own father. Apparently it happened in the last century, perhaps when our speaker was a young boy?
- Calling it "the same old story" like this makes us feel that this is a universal experience of some sort.
- The speaker seems to think that the need to know two languages is common among many immigrants.
The same old story from yesterday morning
about me and my son.
- Our speaker now also compares the conversation to one he had with his son just yesterday.
- This makes this sort of conversation even more universal, of course, but it also makes it sound like a tradition that gets passed down from generation to generation, like the age-old talk about the birds and the bees (except less awkward, we hope).
- One thing you might note here is the repeated phrase "same old story," which also popped up in line 4. This is just the first of many repeated phrases in "Immigrant Blues," so be sure to look for more in the coming lines.
- Plus, check out some of the repeated sounds in these lines. "Old story" and "morning" repeat "o" vowel sounds, which we call assonance. And then "same," "story," and "son" repeat "s" sounds. This one is called alliteration: the repetition of consonant sounds at the beginning of the words. Keep your eye out for more moments like this as you read the rest of the poem. Of course this begs the question: why all this repetition, Lee?
It's called "Survival Strategies
and the Melancholy of Racial Assimilation."
- This story he's been talking about is called "Survival Strategies and the Melancholy of Racial Assimilation." That's a rather fancy name for a story if Shmoop may say so. In fact, it sounds suspiciously like the title of an academic article.
- If we translate this title into conversational language, it might read: how to survive, and the sadness involved in trying to fit into another culture that's made up of people of another race. (Conversational, though certainly less concise!)
- "Survival" definitely fits with what the father tells the son in that first line, about the people trying to kill him since he was born. And it fits with the idea that learning another language will help the son survive, just as it helped his father.
- The second half of the title, "Racial Assimilation," points toward a whole host of issues immigrants might have deal with. It can be nearly impossible to become fluent enough in a language to sound as though you're a native speaker, sure. But it's definitely impossible to somehow transform your race to fit that of the majority group in your new country. You can't change who you are, right?
- Because racism and racial tensions exist in some form just about everywhere, we get a sense that the title of this story represents all the tension, difficulty, and hardship of being a minority. It's like a distant, official, academic way of naming how this speaker feels.
It's called "Psychological Paradigms of Displaced Persons,"
- Our speaker offers yet another title for the story. If we translate this one, it might go something like this: the thought patterns of people who've left (or been forced out of) their homes.
- Okay, so we've had two of these titles so far, which begs the question: what are they doing in this poem? Is our speaker making fun of the academic names for these sorts of things? Is he saying that we focus too much on the study and research of immigration that we don't appreciate the experiences of those who are living it? We're guessing it's something along those lines. What do you think?
- Whatever the case may be, these academic names sound too abstract and clunky to be describing such a real, human issue. They sound removed from any realities of suffering: they're cold and calculating. Can you relate to the "Psychological Paradigms of Displaced Persons"? We sure can't.
- Maybe that's why our speaker is bringing up many different titles: maybe any one of these alone isn't enough to address the depth or complexity of the experience, so he's taking a stab at a whole bunch of them, hoping one will stick. Or proving that none of them will.
called "The Child Who'd Rather Play than Study."
- And another name! This one seems a tad different, though.
- Now we seem to get a glimpse of the conversation from the kid's perspective. His feeling is that playing is a lot more fun than studying. We definitely understand that one.
- This name is pretty heartbreaking (and definitely not academic like the others). Placing this title right after the other, more academic titles, really makes it stand out emotionally.
- We think of the little kid who wants to play, but his father, who's been through such hardship, insists that the boy just keep studying this second language.
- At this point, it's pretty safe to guess that this child who wants to play is the speaker himself (in his youth). But remember, the title might also apply to the speaker's son, who's going through the same struggle his father (and grandfather) did.